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The Few

I love history. It has such a great story to tell, this is part of that story, if you'll look 'below the surface'

The Heroes

Tow of the most famous planes in history, but what was it really like?

Tow of the most famous planes in history, but what was it really like?

A Major milestone

This month is a significant month in history, it's the month in which we remember two of the most significant events in the history of the twentieth century.

September 3rd 1939


Two days earlier, on the pretext of Polish troops supposedly attacking an installation on the German side of their border, Germany launches a massive attack on Poland.

Britain and France gave Germany two days in which to withdraw back over their own border, Hitler ignores the warnings, so as the 48 hours elapse they have no choice but to declare war.

Germany finishes Poland off in less than two weeks. Britain and France begin preparing for what they think will be a long trench war on the continent.

September 1940


Germany finished Poland off, and waited, then in May 1940 she struck West, France lasted six weeks, Holland lasted four days, Belgium seven weeks, British forces were forced off the beaches at Dunkirk. Forced to leave all their equipment behind the British Army had one rifle for every four soldiers, virtually no tanks (That were no match for the German armour anyway!)

All they had left was the Royal Navy and a mauled Royal Air Force.

Germany knew the Royal Navy was the master of the seas, but it could be beaten! It could be crippled by air attack, that meant that any fight with Britain depended on mastering the skies.

All that stood between them and victory was an Airforce that had taken a severe mauling in the Battle for France!

In France the RAF had lost over four hundred planes, and more importantly over four hundred pilots either killed or captured, they had a mere five hundred pilots left compared to over two thousand that Germany could launch!

September 1940

To get an idea of how things were going, let's take a journey back in time, back to one fateful Sunday, but we won't visit the Squadrons, they're too exhausted and too busy, frantically repairing what planes they can, getting as many as is humanly possible to face whatever the enemy is about to throw at them.

Every pilot now knows they are in a fight for survival! The bases have been hit repeatedly, some almost obliterated, the landing strips full of craters that the Groundcrews worked frantically to fix overnight, those that weren't working on the aircraft that is, and there was a lot to do.

They know that if they lose control of the skies, then invasion would only be days away.

Aerial reconnaissance has shown a vast Armada being assembled just out of range, not that the RAF would chance a raid anyway, "too costly" was the word.

The Germans were confident the RAF was 'on its knees' and they were ready to deliver the killer blow by taking out their factories, they'd been targeting London and the cities for the last week.

Battle of Britain Bunker

Where the British controlled the fight from

Where the British controlled the fight from

September 15th 06.30

The RAF, to make sure they didn't overstretch themselves, and leave cities exposed with no protection have split Britain into four 'Groups' with fighter Squadrons within the geographical boundaries of that area responsible for the area.

10 Group has SW England as far up ad Southampton

11 Group has London and SE England

12 Group has the Midlands from North London up to Newcastle on Tyne

13 Group has Scotland

Its 11 Group that has been bearing the brunt of the fighting, but the others have been involved as well.

At dawn one Squadron from each group is brought up to 'ready' The pilots sitting nervously drinking tea a few feet from their fighter, not knowing if they will live out the morning.

At 0800 RAF Uxbridge comes alive.

The girls around the plotting map start moving a lone marker, a German aircraft has been picked up moving west, just outside of Fighter reach. They monitor and give the word to Group 10, the plane just came into range.

Two Hurricanes are sent to deal with the threat, the bomber was near to Southampton where the Spitfire factory was, they could not afford to lose that place. The Hurricanes make short work of the Bomber.

Life in the Country

Even though there was a war on, people were trying to get on with life as much as they could. One thing that was of major concern for Britain was food supply! With the loss of France and the rest of Europe to the enemy, it meant that Britain had to find ways to either supply herself with food or find means of protecting food convoys.

Germany had already carried out air attacks against shipping, and now with the French coast in German hands, they had bases for Submarines all down the west coast of France.

In Britain, the entire population were involved in the struggle, and even children were sent out into the fields picking food, September is the time of the harvest, but even they weren't safe, the war was coming to them!

Radar was valuable that it could see the enemy 'forming up' some ninety miles away, over Northern France, but that didn't mean they could stop them.

Germany had over two thousand experienced pilots for their planes, Britain had lost many of hers and was left with maybe five hundred, but split into the four Groups it meant the odds weren't great.

13 Hours that saved Britain, watch the video.

Uxbridge 10.30 AM

Time to take your seat, sit and watch as the Battle unfolds.

The girls on the floor have just been given the word of a large formation of enemy aircraft forming up over France.

Some fifty Bombers and a hundred fighters, mostly Me109s are heading our way!

That's more than all the fighters in 11 Group!

The Me109 is a formidable plane, slightly faster than the Spitfire, but it loses out in the turn, the 'Spit' and the Hurricane can out-turn them, but the 20mm cannon it carries tear any planes that get into its sights to pieces.

The Spitfire of the other hand carries 8x .303 machine guns, they make a nice hole, but the plane (if hit in the fuselage) is still flyable.

The Hurricane is slower than both, but she's mostly canvas, hit her with a 20mm cannon in the fuselage and the pilot can ignore it, she'll keep flying and keep fighting.

11 Group scrambles Biggin Hill, two Squadrons of Spitfires

More German Bombers appear, it's now over two hundred aircraft heading for London.

11 Groups Scrambles everything they have, 12 Group are told to get ready, they'll hit the Germans when they get over London

Just then, Uxbridge gets a visitor, Winston Churchill has just shown up to see how things are going, he watches the battle unfold.

The RAF waits until the Germans are actually over Britain before engaging, this has the Germans convinced that the RAF is almost destroyed, they're in for a nasty shock!

Coming out of the sun, it's the Spitfires of 92 and 72 Squadrons that dive in, forty fighters facing off against over two hundred fighters and bombers, and this is just the start.

The skies are filled with planes diving, turning, climbing and shooting. vapour trails fill the skies, but the German fighters have a weakness, the Me109 has a fairly short range and can only hang around over London for ten minutes, 12 Group was waiting for them.

Six Squadrons are waiting for the Bombers. Over a hundred RAF planes waiting in ambush, Five more Squadrons from 12 Group join the fight.

Down below, the girls at RAF Uxbridge have been watching, fear building as they saw the formations coming closer and closer.

But there was more to come.


Retreat

Once the bombs were dropped the Germans still had to get home, and the RAF Squadrons that had first met them on the way in had now refuelled and re-armed, they were waiting on the way back.

The Germans knew that the only way they were going to make it back was to fly as tight a formation as they could, that was the only way they could stop the RAF decimating the formation.

But Germany wasn't finished, this was just the start.

Devastation

Once the raid moved off the emergency services swung into gear and the cleanup began, the devastation was incredible.

Later on in the war, the RAF was to work out that on a daylight raid less than one Bomb in four would fall within five miles of any target!

That meant that any raid sent against military targets would not even get close to hitting them, it was the civilians that would pay the price. That day thousands would die in the raids, St Pauls Cathedral was hit, as was Central London, but very few military targets were hit. but more was to come.

1 pm

The Luftwaffe Have lost 18 planes of the 200 they sent, just under 10% of the formation, all their crews are either killed or captured.

The RAF Lost 13 planes, not all the pilots were killed and most would be flying again the next day.

Afternoon, Germany ups the pressure!

At 1.40 in the afternoon Radar picked up another formation heading for Britain, this one was so large they couldn't tell exactly how many were coming, but it was estimated at four hundred plus!

The commander of 11 Group scrambles each Squadron as they come back to readiness. He also asks 12 and 10 Group to get ready, between them they have maybe 250 planes

They're facing a hundred Bombers and three hundred and fifty German Fighters, the Germans were using the Bombers as bait for an ambush, the goal was to annihilate the Spitfires as they attacked the Bomber formations.

Not long after that, the Bombers reach London, anti-aircraft fire from the few anti-aircraft guns in London (London had less than two hundred for the whole city) The pilots of 12 Group use the smoke from the AA shells to help them find the bomber formation, the sky over the city is a battle site.

There is one story of a Hurricane pilot who saw a German lining up for a Bombing run on Buckingham palace, he was out of ammunition and had no other choice but to ram the Bomber, he went straight for the tail.

The Hurricane caught the tail of the Bomber with his propeller, slicing it clean off he limped back to base (the Hurricane was a sturdy plane) the Hurricane was back in action the next day.

Churchill has been watching the battle the whole day, at the height of the afternoon he turns to Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park (the CO of 11 Group) and asks, "What about reserves?"

Sir Keith simply says, "There are none!" everything was committed to the battle.


5pm

One last raid was launched by the Germans, targeting Southampton. The fighters sent to intercept the raid had already been in action twice that day but manages to drive the formation of Me110s (Fighter-bombers) off without loss on either side

Aftermath

When the dust settled the RAF claimed that they had shot down over a hundred and fifty enemy planes in the skies over England for the loss of only twenty-six British fighters.

The reality was a little different with the Germans recording losses of seventy-six aircraft, but still a massive victory for the RAF.

That means of the 600 planes the Germans used, 15% didn't return, and that's just in one day!

For the RAF 26 planes lost (9%) but of them most will be flying again within a few days.

The day had shown that the RAF wasn't as near to being 'finished' as Hermann Goering had told the German people, it was still a force to be reckoned with!

Two days later Hitler ordered all preparations for 'Operation Sea Lion' (The invasion of Britain) to stop.

That night, on the way back to the Hoses of parliament Winston Churchill penned the famous words below.

The Speech

Never in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many, to so few!

— Winston Churchill

Listen to the speech itself

Finally, were we truly alone?

One of the Myths about the early years of WW2 is that Britain stood alone. While there weren't many governments standing with Britain (many had fallen) we were far from being alone!

Below is a list of the nationalities of pilots who were members of 'The few'. No less than sixteen nations!

During the Battle of Britain, one-fifth of Fighter Command's aircrew came from overseas and 16 nations were represented in its squadrons. A total of 126 New Zealanders, 98 Canadians, 33 Australians and 25 South Africans participated. They were joined by three Rhodesians, a Jamaican, a Barbadian and a Newfoundlander. The Commonwealth countries produced some of the best fighter pilots, including the Australian Flying Officer Paterson Hughes and Flight Lieutenant Adolph 'Sailor' Malan from South Africa.

After the fall of France, the RAF welcomed into its ranks exiles from German-occupied Europe. In all, 145 Poles, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 13 Frenchmen and an Austrian flew in the Battle and many of these proved to be excellent pilots. Though only operational for six weeks, the Polish No. 303 Squadron claimed 126 victories to become the top-scoring RAF unit. The most successful RAF pilot, with 17 kills, was Sergeant Josef Frantisek, a Czech national who also flew with '303'.

Though their countries were neutral, 10 Irish and 11 United States citizens fought in the Battle of Britain. Pilot Officer William 'Billy' Fiske was the first American airman to be killed and a plaque was later unveiled to his memory in St Paul's Cathedral which read: "An American citizen who died so that England might live."

September 15th Is celebrated in Britain as Battle of Britain Day, but maybe it's something we all should remember, as it wasn't Just British pilots fighting for freedom that day.

Let's remember them all.

Comments

Nell Rose from England on October 01, 2020:

I have just been watching about the little 13 year old girl in England who helped to build the Spitfires! Can you imagine any kids doing that today?

Lawrence Hebb (author) from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 28, 2020:

Zulma

Sorry, I missed your comment before. The Poles were a pretty special Squadron, they'd had biplanes in Poland and got obliterated from the skies.

The Brits gave them what they thought were outdated Hurricanes and the Poles showed us just how good both they and the aircraft were!

They used the Hurricane's manoeuvrability to close right up on the Germans before opening fire.

The RAF were taught to open fire at 400 yards, but the Poles closed in to 200 before opening fire. The results were spectacular.

Nell Rose from England on September 28, 2020:

We were great back then.No whining, moaning or anything else. They just go on with it. My mother was a Biggin Hill for a while. She was a Sergeant in the WAAFS.

Lawrence Hebb (author) from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 10, 2020:

Linda

Thank you, I wanted to get away from just reporting a load of facts, get more into what it was like facing such seemingly huge odds.

By the way, I did cheat a bit, I used the time frame from the documentary I put in YouTube, it gives the feel of just how much was required of everyone.

Next week we might look at some of the people you don't normally hear about who played key roles in the Battle.

Lawrence Hebb (author) from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 08, 2020:

Mel

Thank you, I was wanting to get away from the 'facts and figures' that while important, can be a bit 'dry'.

Glad you enjoyed the article.

Lawrence

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on September 08, 2020:

Hi Lawrence.

I remember watching a documentary where they talked about those Polish pilots. Their tenacity and motivation are understandable. I imagine most if not all had a personal axe to grind.

Lawrence Hebb (author) from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 07, 2020:

Bill

Thank you. Its been eighty years since those brave souls stood up to the aggression.

The men and women of that generation have gone now, but we still remember what they did for us.

Lawrence Hebb (author) from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 07, 2020:

Eric

Thank you, I think a lot of people don't realise how close we were to defeat!

Many historians think Hitler was already starting to plan for the invasion of Russia, but the reality was Britain, for all her Empire, had just a few men and women who stood between them and total destruction.

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on September 07, 2020:

Lawrence, if only my history textbooks had been as well-written as this. Your writing should be adapted to a television documentary. This was brilliantly done.

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on September 07, 2020:

An episode in history that often gets swallowed up by the major ground campaigns, but is equally important, if not more so. Plucky little Britain showed a lot of moxie standing up to the German juggernaut, and you have done a splendid job recreating this airborne struggle. Great article!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 07, 2020:

A remarkable time in history, and an excellent article. Thanks for the history lesson, one I'm quite a familiar with, having been a history teacher, but one I am more than happy to read about again.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on September 07, 2020:

Fantastic article. Wow!! I study history but this is a mind blower. I did not know that it was this bad.

Lawrence Hebb (author) from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 07, 2020:

Zulma

It was, but what was more important to me, was the fact that so many from other nations stood with us.

Interestingly the Squadron with the highest kills in the Battle was 303 squadron, the pilots there were all Polish and couldn't speak much English!!

303 Squadron flew Hurricanes that were considered obsolete but proved deadly.

Glad the hub helped you understand a bit more about the Battle.

On a personal note, my Mum's oldest brother flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain

Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon from United Kingdom on September 07, 2020:

Great article, Lawrence. Thank you for helping us remember the determination and sacrifice of these brave men and women.

Living in the UK and having served in the USAF, I am well aware of these air battles but didn't really appreciate till now how badly the cards were stacked against Britain. Their survival was truly a miracle.

Have a lovely day.